Monday, November 22, 2010

On Palate, Determinism and Science

A recent argument with a famous cookbook author and teacher, turned out to be a pretty thought provoking experience for me. Although she was, I thought, extremely rude and condescending, I doubt she had any idea that her mean-spirited comments would cause anything other than embarrassment to me. Yet this morning while I was swimming at the gym, something she wrote to me-by way of attempting to dismiss another famous author who she seemed to think had no right to write about cooking from the perspective of a scientist (She called him "useless to cooks.") -came back to me. 
When it comes to cooking, however, science may explain, but it doesn't "govern" to use your term. It's the palate that does that, and that is the reason that there are many more technically proficient chefs than there are good cooks.
For starters, I think some of the second part of the statement has merit and that it is probably true that there are many more technically proficient chefs than there are good cooks. Like her, I cannot prove that it is true that the number of technically proficient chefs outnumber those that she and I would consider to be good cooks, but it feels right. My personal experience suggests that the population of technically proficient cooks is very small and that a good deal of badly prepared meals are made by cooks whose command of technique is very weak. However, the rules of polite rhetoric require that I agree with something she wrote, so let's just say that I agree with most of the second part of that statement, and take a look at what I cannot agree with
When it comes to cooking, however, science may explain, but it doesn't "govern" to use your term. It's the palate that does that,
And the statement I wrote that provoked her response
To say that [Name Redacted] is of no use to cooks is as misguided as suggesting that it is useless for a cook to understand the physical and chemical principles that govern the rules of cooking. 
I used to work with a very religious Hatian fellow who was fond of saying "Man proposes, God disposes" whenever something went wrong. You may want to do something, you may try to do something, but unless God allows you to do it, it ain't getting done. 

Since this is a secular blog, I am not going to get involved in discussing whether or not God exists or if God's existence plays any role in deciding whether or not your bread will proof or you pasta will taste the way you hope it will taste. Rather I'm going to use the logic of that statement, to explain how I think what I believe is the proper relationship between what the famous cookbook author calls "palate" and science. But first let me make it clear what I mean by the word "palate."

Since the word palate is a term of art that is idiosyncratically defined by people who practice and patronize arts where it's necessary to speak about palate. I'm going to define it in the way that I, as a chef and culinary teacher, understand it. I'm sure if you look it up in a dictionary its definition won't be that different from 
a set of personally held beliefs about how a thing(s) or idea(s) should be, before the self recognizes that that thing (s) or idea(s) as aesthetically pleasing. 
When I am engaged in the work of a chef, I use my palate/beliefs about how food should look and taste to guide me as I choose what ingredients I will use, what proportions I will mete and what cooking techniques I will use to construct a dish that I hope will be aesthetically pleasing to myself and to the palates of those I hope will eat it. However, if my beliefs about how a dish should be in order to be aesthetically pleasing do not take into account the fact that nothing I do can violate the laws of physics and be successful, it does not matter what my palate decided, it's not happening. So, returning to the interior logic of the homily of my former Haitian friend :
Palate Proposes, Science disposes. 
Atomic and Molecular Theory, Chemistry, Biology and ultimately the Laws of Physics determined what will and will not happen in the kitchen. To believe palate is the sole arbiter of what will and will not occur, defies reason and smacks of hubris.


Sandy Smith said...

Well done! The cooler head prevails!

LMH said...

The converse of your statement is also true - just because your dish obeys the laws of physics (and they all do, because they are LAWS) does not mean it will be delicious. Maybe that was the point she was trying to make? That good scientific knowledge of the cooking process does not guarantee good food? Although I think you are quite right - good fundamental principles better equip you to prepare good food than just "I like to eat."

If she was talking about Howard McGee, I'd have kicked her in the shins. But then I'm biased. I'm a chemist.

Tags said...

In the Parliament of the Palate, the parliamentarians would do well not to disregard the laws of physics.

Bob del Grosso said...

I realized that the converse was true (that what makes it such a neat piece of logic!) but, chose not to mention it explicitly because, to your point, I saw no point in making her point given that I'd already discussed it in the paragraph about technically adept cooks who can't produce good food. In any case, I think the statement that I generated is more true than the converse because even though a few people who understand physics can't cook well no one can violate the laws of physics and produce good food. Not yet anyway...

Thanks for making this more explicit! What good fun!

Natalie Sztern said...

To me, it was an interesting take on an article I, too, read. That she chose to use Facebook to discuss it, opened it up to her many ‘friend’s and made for interesting banter.

My stark astonishment came when I read her sarcastic and seemingly antagonist answer to your thoughts and input.

It was simply discourteous and bad mannered for a woman who is supposed to hold stature in her field. Not one, I think, that can be construed as having intent not meant to be.

Bob del Grosso said...

I don't share your opinion about when the discourse took a wrong turn. That moment came before I ever made a comment and she and others wrote that the other author was "useless to cooks" and should have his column taken away. That was too much.

Kevin said...

I recently reviewed Keys to Good Cooking and was reflecting on how drastically McGee's earlier books affected my cooking - for the better.

I was reminded of my time programming computers and how much it mattered that I not only knew the computer language I was using, but also had a fundamental the lower-level structures a given language was built on.

Rachel Laudan said...

Bob, agreed. With all of it. I´d use slightly different language and one day maybe we can chat about that. And about the question of whose palate judges. I tend to think that within a culinary tradition it´s possible to have a reasonably clear definition of what tastes better. Cross traditions I´m not so sure. thanks for writing this stimulating response.

Chad said...

Out of curiosity I tracked this back to the original discussion. Apart from some of the philosophical points you and a couple of others tried to bring to the discussion, the only impression I'm left with is of an astonishingly rude, self-important biddy. I was stunned.

Chef Schneller said...

Are there more technically proficient chefs than good cooks? The hoards of line cooks often cranking out the finest food in the world over and over with deft precision, toiling over the cuisine and never ever thinking of the science behind it must out number the proficient chef. These laborers run on automatic pilot, they don't think "Wow look at the Maillard reaction on that one" They simply do the task at hand with skill. I love McGees on food and cooking and often talk of him in class and I find value in understanding his work. But that is for after the dinner rush is over, for contemplation and adjustment to a recipe. Oh and there is no excuse for rude behavior unless driving on the Major Deegan.

Scotty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scotty said...

I wonder why anyone would propose that food science and the palate are mutually exclusive. The first is objective, the second entirely subjective. Food science informs the cook of fact, and busts myths. Palate is just opinion. Oh, my opinion is correct, by the way. :-)

cbertel said...

Well, what an interesting discussion. I think all the science in the world can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, if the sow's ear is top quality (or something like that). So many variables come into play in cooking. I've always liked McGee's stuff, it's much more accessible than the food science texts we used in grad school! Thanks for writing this.

ffjennie said...

To go a different direction here....I think the difference is that you have to actually love food & eating to create good food.

Its like everything else in life - we tend to be best at what we love most, and the converse is true as well.

Or in other words - you can literally taste whether or not the person who made the food sees preparing/eating food as just a necessity to survive, or, a true joy for it's own sake.

Knowledge (including of physics) will further enhance a good cook's food & palate.

From a science point of view - the more of your brain you engage in an activity, the better. Emotional responses to food & cooking are (we often forget) coming from our brains too, as well as the memories of the technical knowledge. To use the knowledge (the left side of the brain) and the emotions (the right side) we're literally "putting more" into our food.

Bob del Grosso said...

I agree that it seems impossible to create good food without loving food.

Bob del Grosso said...

I agree that it seems impossible to create good food without loving food.